I work in program and development for a non-profit organization that works with inner-city students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While I never imagined I’d ever work in the education realm, and I don’t see this necessarily as my life’s work, I have learned so many invaluable lessons that I could not have gained from any other environment, and I am thankful for that.
Over a year ago, green and armed with a business degree, I set out to start my path as a young adult, and hoped I would make a difference along the way. Then I had an idea, and I was fortunate to have a mentor and boss who took that idea, helped me sculpt and refine it, and let it fly.
I dubbed that idea the Read-A-Thon. The premise was to give the 300 4th – 12th grade students in our 7-week academic and sports summer program incentives to read. (There was a fundraising component as well, but I won’t get into that for now.) An avid reader myself, I had gained so much from the characters I met and the situations they faced in my youth and adolescence, and I wanted our students to have that too. So, as I’m sure any parent or teacher will tell you, we used a little bribery to let these kids realize their potential.
Did it work? To my excitement, yes! Enticed by the prize of a trip to a theme park and scholarship money, they read more than I imagined they would, with a total of 150,174 pages over the course of the program and 500 pages read on average by each of our students last summer.
But still I was not satisfied. I was charged with the high school girls in our program, and to my disappointment, they were the most unenthusiastic group towards this program. I had to almost beg them to read enough in order to reach the minimum goal I set for them. So I racked my brain on how I would get this same group of girls interested in the program the following year.
With our summer program coming to a close this week, and the second installment of the Read-A-Thon, I can definitely say that it has been successful. Not only for the 4th – 8th grade students (that was a given, looking at the kids’ great response from last year), but also for my high school students. My 24 high school students alone read 30,000 pages (that’s an average of 1,250 pages per girl) ! Also, the top overall reader of the 360 students in the program was one of my high schoolers, with over 3,000 pages. Woohoo!
What made the difference between this year and last? Honestly, I can’t completely pinpoint the answer, but here are a couple of things that I incorporated in their curriculum:
1. The College Focus. In our character development class, we discussed the steps one needed to take to get to college. It ended up being a lot of fun! We talked about the importance of the ACT and SAT tests, as well as college application essays, and how just reading on a regular basis helps you improve your language skills. Most of the girls speak primarily Spanish at home, so making sure they read a lot in English will automatically improves their skills! We also focused on what THEY wanted in a college, and they did research to find schools that fit their own criteria. We even spent an entire day in Chicago looking at a few colleges, and the girls had a blast!
2. A Reading List. I compiled a list of about 50 books the girls could choose from to “count” for the Read-A-Thon. While we have a selected number of books that the younger students can check out and read, I felt that the high school students could have a little more lee way with what they could read for this program. I think last year I was too vague and let them read anything that could be considered “college bound” reading. This year I developed a list of titles I had read, and split them up into “easy,” “medium” and “challenging” categories. As they all are at different levels of comprehension, this made it a lot more manageable. After they read a book, they then met with me one-on-one to discuss it together.
3. Last Year’s Results. Money talks. And nothing like the fact that last year’s #1 reader was a six-grader that won over $200 in scholarship money for reading. If a six-grader can have enough dedication to do it, then surely a high school student can match that effort.
I’m so proud of these girls. I can’t describe to you what it feels like to inspire someone to read something like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, then say “I loved it! I’m going to read Sense and Sensibility and then her other books next!” or to hear someone say, “I can definitely relate to Fanny in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Today it’s harder than ever to get kids excited in reading. There are so many possible distractions, with the internet, social media sites, and don’t get me started about cell phones! But once they discover the infinite knowledge they can gain, the emotions they can evoke, or the places and events they can visit just by cracking open a cover, they have found something that can never be taken from them.
I hope to have planted a seed, and I can only hope that I can continue to nurture the plant to help it grow for the world.